The Holiday Experience is here.
By that, I’m referring to the last months of the year which contain Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, respectively.
I call it the ‘Holiday Experience’ because they aren’t just single days of celebration on the calendar. Each holiday comes with it’s own set of coordinated scheduling sessions, unique parties, themed home decor, special sales, costumes, menus and high sentimental expectations.
No wonder so many of us are exhausted and anxious just thinking about it.
Confession: every time I haven’t enjoyed the holidays the past few years, it’s been my own fault.
Before you think I’m wallowing in a vat of self pity, hear me out. Recognizing that I am in control of how I perceive the Holiday Experience is actually quite freeing.
I can choose to say “no” without apology or lengthy explanations.
I can choose to simplify my expectations.
I can choose to participate while being careful to not exceed the abilities, emotional energy and financial budget that I have available.
It’s needful and healthy before we delve into the cultural chaos of the Holiday Experience to evaluate how we’re going to approach it.
Read on, I hope these three tips can help you discover that have probably have more say in how your Holiday Experience goes than you think you do.
Get comfortable with Uncomfortable
If things are going to change, you have to practice making full stops and careful reevaluations. This isn’t always easy but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming.
Start by asking yourself why.
Why am I doing this thing, party, activity, buying this gift, etc.?
Is it because I feel obligated to do it? Pay attention to your internal thought process. Are you telling yourself things like: “A good spouse/parent/sibling/friend would do this. If I don’t do this, so-and-so will think (blank) about me. But it’s the way we’ve always done it, it’s tradition!”
Is it because I only feel like my kids would enjoy it but I actually hate it? (real moment: would I rather give my family lots of “but everyone does such-and-such this time of year!” activities or cultivate special experiences that work for and excite our family in ways I know we as a unit operate?)
Is it because people in my family are inadvertently (or purposefully) pressuring me to participate?
Is it because I saw it on social media and now I have FOMO (fear of missing out)?
My answer to all of this healthy boundaries.
You know yourself. You know what you and your spouse have or have not been going through. You know what your kids are capable of handling. Therefore, you have permission to exercise your sole right to establish and uphold boundaries.
Have an honest conversation with yourself and/or your spouse about what you hope for the the holidays feel like. Not what your mother or siblings or in-laws or grandparents or peer group or church community says. Turn off the TV. Put down the phone. Mute all distractions and communicate. Pray about what you decide together.
Next, write your goals down in the most basic form. (example: we want our Holiday Experience to be full of meaning, slowness and fun).
Say yes to everything that helps you stay within those parameters and no to anything that drags you outside of them. Finally, commit to establishing these boundaries that help protect your Holiday Experience. Repeat every year.
That may or may not look like:
Fasting from social media so you can better focus on doing things that would make the Holiday Experience meaningful for your family.
Firmly but briefly—with a lot grace—explaining to extended family members that your family unit will not be participating in (blank) because (blank). Give them a heartfelt, well-thought out answer one time and then stick to your guns.
Starting a brand new tradition or stopping an old one. There are no rules here. The important thing is that you keep yourself open to reevaluating what’s working and what’s not. Then, move forward in whatever direction is working for you this year.
Recognizing you are at a healthy place to engage in extended family holiday parties/activities this year and doing so joyfully without shame over having to say no in previous years.
Recognizing that you need to opt out of extended family holiday parties/activities this year and doing do with confidence despite being able to say yes in previous years.
Referring to my example above: what slow, meaningful and fun looks like for others will not look exactly the same for you. And that’s ok! Have grace, grace, grace for this process. Respect other’s version of the Holiday Experience. Be flexible but not to the point of sacrificing your sanity in unhealthy ways.
I would rather “show up” present and joyful for my family/extended family/friends for a few select things then overextend myself because I compromised to the point of personal misery. Think about it this way: identifying and upholding boundaries ensures that you and your family can show up for the Holiday Experience in the best possible way for everyone. Who doesn’t want that?!
2. Simplify expectations
I see a lot of advice about “lowering” expectations, but that sounds negative. I’d like to make the case for simplifying them instead. Let me explain: Instead of approaching everything and expecting it all to be wildly fun and go exactly as planned, pare down your expectations towards your Holiday Experience to fit into the realm of reality.
DON’T SAY: I am expecting for all the kids to be happy and not whiny every time we do something fun together. We will never leave the house in a exasperated huff. Our entire family will be dressed in adorable, coordinated, outfits/costumes. No one will complain or be too loud or be disappointed. Each outing/activity/party will be a golden, forever memory for all of us.
DO SAY: I will choose joy because of the gift that we can all be together today. To the best of my abilities, I will be present with my family, to serve, teach and enjoy the process. I hope to get one (yes, just one!) picture that helps me remember today beautifully. I will provide the level of “fun” that is healthy for everyone. It is completely outside my control how my family reacts (negatively or positively) to it.
Things will not go as planned. Things will go exceedingly better than planned. Things will be laughably awful. Things will be bright and delightful.
So much of our anxiety around the Holiday Experience comes from trying to control things we will never be able to. “How will my family or extended family react if we do that? What will people think if we opt out of that? I really want my child to absolutely love this as much as I think they will!”
It’s like climbing into a canoe to float down river and trying to control the river with our single oar. Can you imagine the ridiculousness of being frustrated that the river doesn't smooth out or speed up or turn the way you wish just because you stuck your paddle into it? No, all we can do is make sure we keep our seat in our little canoes and paddle them faithfully. We’re in control of how we travel the river (or even if we need to get out and sit on the bank for awhile) not the actual river itself. Make sense?
3. Embrace “No.” to say “Yes!”
You don’t have to. Did you know that? It’s true.
You don’t have to spend the money. You don’t have to travel home for Christmas. If you want things to be minimal and beautifully simplistic, make them beautiful and simplistic. You don’t have to be so busy. You don’t have to. No, really. You don’t.
I know families that don’t buy Christmas gifts at all because they donate that money and spend Christmas Day helping others.
I know families that never spend any major holiday with extended family because they didn’t want to navigate the drama of choosing between sides each year. They spend time with extended family throughout the year, but holidays—Christmas and Thanksgiving especially—come with too many unachievable expectations and they decided to opt out.
Jonathan and I buy a maximum of three gifts for each our kids. We communicate to extended family that we prefer experiences over gifts. If they still buy them lots gifts, we explain to our kids the “one in, one out” rule when it comes to toys. We donate or throw away excess toys if they aren’t used or we don’t have the storage for them. Pro tip: do not create more storage space for all the new toys coming in. You already have all the storage you need, trust me. Make the stuff coming in fit into the storage you already have and get rid of the rest.
We will not be traveling to visit my extended family for Christmas this year. Jonathan is off work and we could certainly make it there for that holiday but we aren’t. I’ve already called and explained that this year it’s not going to work for a number of personal reasons. My family is very understanding, but even if they weren’t, it would still be healthy and good for us to say we aren’t coming.
Acting on the “I don’t have to” mindset takes courage and kindness. People will not understand (you don’t need them to). You will fight feelings of internal shame. But remember the first tip at the beginning of this post? Every time you feel icky (or people make you feel icky) because you’re doing what you need to do to make the Holiday Experience best for your loved ones, pull out that list of whys you wrote down earlier. It’ll help, I promise.
The truth is, we all have limited amounts of mental/emotional energy, money, and time. There is absolutely zero shame in that. You can only say yes to so much before it becomes unhealthy. Say NO all you need to so you can start saying your most sincere and joyful YES.
So many of you bravely wrote in asking how to handle family obligations. You asked how to spend time as newlyweds with both sides? How to handle family expectations? How to decide if we should spend money for traveling to family? How to convey minimalistic wishes to family? How to handle all the parties as an introvert? How to navigating expectations of family? How do you deal with unhealthy/toxic/draining family relationships?
I can’t give specific advice on all of that because each of you are dealing with unique family dynamics. It would be unwise of me to make blanket statement to try and remedy these very personal situations.
What I can say is to operate out of love and lean hard on the promptings of the Holy Spirit. You may not communicate correctly or handle each situation right but if your goal is to all things in love God will provide the grace needed.
Let’s revisit the definition of love, shall we?
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8.
Hold yourself as well as other people you interact with to this standard. Be patient and have grace but do not rejoice in the wrongdoing of guilt-tripping, unnecessary busyness, manipulation, unachievable expectations and grace-less interactions.
Finally, remember this:
Your worth isn’t determined by what you buy, how you perform, or how many things you say yes or no to.
The only thing you have control over is how you to choose how you react to how everything unfolds. What a freeing thought!
You can define what the Holiday Experience looks like to great extent. Don’t shoulder that responsibility with shame or apologies. Walk in confidence!
Finally, if the Holiday Experience is painful or weird for you because of any reason, I’m so sorry. I really and truly am. I may not know your story but Jesus does.
Whatever situation you find yourself in, please know this: the holidays are ultimately not about what you give or get or even who you spend it with—though those things can be incredibly dear and sweet.
No, the holidays are about ultimately about receiving what God has given (or taken away) with thankfulness. They’re about knowing all we have is good because He does not withhold Himself. They are about rejoicing that we can start over again with grace and He will always carry us forward, deeper into His love. May you keep that in mind as you venture forward.
Wishing you all the best as we seek to celebrate the end of 2018 in all the beautiful ways available to us.